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Research Shows Smiles Are Contagious

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smile proliferation

In The Upside of Irrationality, which I’ve referenced before for other reasons, Dan Ariely writes about a phenomenon called self-herding, which is a process whereby we make decisions based on how we’ve acted in the past–even if our past behaviour was irrational.

Ariely relates an experiment he conducted with a colleague to test the effects of self-herding. In it, participants played the ultimatum game. This game has two players: the sender and the receiver, whose identities remain unknown to each other. The sender is given some money–$10, in Ariely’s experiment–which he splits between himself and the receiver however he likes. The receiver then gets to either accept or reject the split. If he accepts it both the sender and the receiver gets to keep the amounts specified by the sender, but if he rejects it they both have to give the money back.

Ariely’s experiment played out a little differently. Unbeknownst to the receiver, the sender wasn’t someone sitting in another room. Ariely and his colleague just offered every participant a split of $7.50 and $2.50–the $2.50 being the amount available to the receiver. But before deciding whether to accept this unfair offer, each receiver was shown a video. Half of the participants watched an amusing clip from the TV sitcom Friends, in which the characters are making New Year’s resolutions that are obviously impossible for them to keep. The other half watched a clip from a movie called Life as a House. In this clip, the main character, who is an an architect, is fired by his boss after twenty years on the job. He then takes a baseball bat to the miniature architectural models of the houses he’s made for the company.

Ariely found that the participants who felt irritated by the Life as a House clip were much more likely to reject the offer than those who watched the amusing Friends clip. This suggests our emotions cause us to make irrational decisions (it would be rational to accept the money, no matter how much is offered), but says nothing about self-herding. So the experimenters waited a few hours for the emotions elicited by the clips to pass and then played the ultimatum game again, offering the same unfair splits. They observed the same patterns. Those who had been angered by the Life as a House clip earlier frequently chose to take revenge on the sender by rejecting the offer, even though they were no longer angry. And those who’d watched the Friends clip continued to accept the unfair offer, because that was how they’d acted in the past.

The upshot of all this for me is that not only do negative emotions cause us to treat others poorly for no good reason, they also have long-term effects on our future behaviour. If I choose not to give someone a break in traffic today because I’m in a bad mood, it’s likely that two weeks later, or even two years later, I still won’t be giving any breaks, because I will have decided I’m the sort of person who doesn’t do that. When making decisions we tend to refer to our past behaviour as a guide.

But that isn’t all. Not only will I become a dick if I let my bad moods govern me–I’ll likely also put other people in bad moods, prompting them to make bad decisions that will negatively affect their actions far into the future.

So the next time you tip generously, hold a door open for someone, or even just smile, remember that you aren’t only being nice for the sake of being nice. You’re also making a long-term investment in humanity’s overall happiness.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Katelynn permalink
    05/09/2011 4:39 PM

    Thank you so much! This helped me with my science project! I can’t thank you enough, keep posting!!

  2. 05/09/2011 4:50 PM

    I sure will! Glad I could help.


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